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Over the past two years, social distancing has become a part of our everyday language and conversations. It’s a concept that many people likely hadn’t heard of until the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, but now most of us are practicing it.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CCD) recommends quarantining if you have been in close contact with someone who has known COVID-19. Close contact is considered being within 6 feet of someone for a cumulative total of 15 minutes or more within a 24-hour period.
If you have been fully vaccinated, you do not need to quarantine after contact with someone who had COVID-19—unless you have symptoms. However, you should get tested three to five days after exposure, even if you don’t have symptoms. You should also wear a mask indoors in public for 14 days following exposure or you receive a negative test result.
Many people who social distance regularly still go outside to enjoy a walk or trail, but can you do the same if you’re in self-isolation or self-quarantining?
The difference between social distance and self-isolation
Social distancing means avoiding crowded spaces and events. According to John Hopkins Medicine, social distancing includes canceling events, closing down many non-essential services like schools and libraries, and having people work from home if possible. People who are social distancing are advised to avoid gathering in large groups.
“Self-isolation is separating yourself from the population if you are believed to have symptoms consistent with COVID-19, or have tested positive for it,” says Soma Mandal, MD, an internist at Summit Medical Group in Berkeley Heights, New Jersey. In other words, an infected person (or someone who thinks they may have been exposed to COVID-19) should self-isolate to prevent coronavirus transmission.
Self-isolation is used to separate people infected with COVID-19 from those who are not. People who are in isolation should stay home until it’s safe for them to be around others. At home, anyone sick or infected should separate from others, stay in a specific “sick room” or area, and use a separate bathroom if possible.
Can you go outside if you have COVID?
Most of us can’t imagine being cooped up inside all day; the thought of getting outside to stretch our legs is tempting. But what are the rules around self-isolating and getting outdoors?
“Someone in self-isolation can go outside for fresh air, but should ideally remain in the confines of their own home, such as their backyard,” Dr. Mandal says.
Susan Besser, MD, a primary care physician at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland adds: “Self-isolation is limiting exposure to others at all times. This is done by staying home and away from other people. The point is to limit the spread of COVID-19. If you aren’t around others, you can’t spread or catch the virus.” Limiting exposure includes limiting contact with those who live in your home.
Which outdoor areas are safe during self-isolation?
If you’re in self-isolation, you should really not be outside except for your own property, explains Dr. Mandal. If you need to go to the doctor, you should call first, and wear a mask. Your physician’s office may have a policy that the physician will meet you at your car. This is meant to decrease transmission to others in the waiting room and the medical facility. Similarly, if you have to go to the emergency room, you should call first to alert them of your possible COVID-19 infection in order to protect healthcare workers and other patients there.
However, Dr. Besser says a short walk where you keep your distance from others—and wear a mask in case anyone gets too close—is acceptable. Masks help both the person wearing it and the person breathing in nearby air.
Some ideas for fresh air if you’re feeling cooped up in isolation include:
- Go on a walk either early in the morning, or late at night, when there are fewer people outside
- Sit on your front porch or spend some time in your backyard
- Open up all of your windows for some fresh air
Places to avoid while in self-isolation:
- Public places where others gather
- Anywhere that is crowded or has high traffic
Dr. Mandal says that if you decide to go for a walk with someone, you should keep your distance to at least six feet. COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, so the goal is to not put respiratory droplets with viral particles in the air that others can inhale.
If you test positive for COVID-19 and have no symptoms, you can be with others after 10 days have passed.
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What should I do if I encounter someone and I’m on a walk?
Ideally, you wouldn’t be near anyone when you’re out on a walk, but if you do see someone approaching, it’s best to keep your distance or change directions (for example, you can cross the road if someone is walking toward you). Wear a mask.
Dr. Besser says you can gently remind someone of social distancing if anyone starts to come close to you. Keep your mask on when you cough or sneeze to avoid the aerosolization of viral particles.
“If you are walking in your neighborhood and you see someone approaching you, stop and hold out your arms requesting that they keep an appropriate distance,” Dr. Mandal advises. “Unfortunately, not everyone is adhering to recommendations, but it is our responsibility to gently remind everyone to keep their boundaries.”
Can you get COVID outside?
COVID transmission outdoors is possible but less likely than indoor exposure. The coronavirus spreads the same way indoors as it does outdoors. The chances of getting COVID outside are lowered by wearing masks, social distancing, and washing hands, according to the World Health Organization.